Scientists want to talk science, not government policy

This letter to the editor from E4D's Executive Director was published in the Hill Times today: Contrary to the scenario that Mel Cappe’s comments suggest in last weeks article on communication policies for government scientists (The Hill Times, Oct. 28, pg. 41), the documented cases of government scientists being prohibited from talking to the media are not cases of scientists trying to “go public” with information or “go out and embarrass the government” over policy decisions they did not like. In many of the most notable instances, the government scientists in question (e.g. Kristi Miller, Scott Dallimore, David Tarasick) were not permitted to do interviews to discuss their peer-reviewed research that had already been published in internationally renowned scientific journals.

This letter to the editor from E4D's Executive Director was published in the Hill Times today:

Contrary to the scenario that Mel Cappe’s comments suggest in last weeks article on communication policies for government scientists (The Hill Times, Oct. 28, pg. 41), the documented cases of government scientists being prohibited from talking to the media are not cases of scientists trying to “go public” with information or “go out and embarrass the government” over policy decisions they did not like. In many of the most notable instances, the government scientists in question (e.g. Kristi Miller, Scott Dallimore, David Tarasick) were not permitted to do interviews to discuss their peer-reviewed research that had already been published in internationally renowned scientific journals.

Mr. Cappe’s comments do, however, illustrate the important distinction between scientists being permitted to discuss their research versus being permitted to discuss government policy decisions.

As Mr. Cappe suggests, a case can be made that government scientists should not be commenting publicly on government policy. But for a government that values transparency and accountability, the default policy should be open communication except in instances where there is compelling evidence that it is not in the public’s interest. Instead, current policies actively discourage scientists from communicating their science. This not only impedes the ability of our government scientists to actually do their jobs (since science requires the free and open communication of ideas) - it harms our democracy, which relies on an informed public to flourish.

It is time to put in place clear communication policies that explicitly permit government scientists to discuss their research with fellow scientists, members of the media, and the public. And perhaps go even further, as many government departments in the United States have done, and add a ‘personal view exception’ that embraces scientists’ right to express their views as long as it is clear they are not speaking for the department.

Lastly, I’m glad we have settled the debate over whether scientists have indeed been impeded from speaking freely about their science as even the article title (“Cappe agrees with Harper: scientists should not be free to talk to media”) acknowledges that this is the case.

Dr. Katie Gibbs

Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy.

 

Letter is in response to this article: http://www.hilltimes.com/civil-circles/hill-life-people/2013/10/28/cappe-agrees-with-harper-scientists-should-not-be-free-to/36425

Katie Gibbs

Executive Director

Katie Gibbs is a scientist, organizer and advocate for science and evidence-based policies. While completing her PhD at the University of Ottawa researching threats to endangered species, she was one of the lead organizers of the ‘Death of Evidence’ rally - one of the largest science rallies in Canadian history. Katie cofounded Evidence for Democracy and now serves as its Executive Director.